The aim of yoga is to still the busy-ness of your mind – but if your life and relationships are a mess, it’s impossible to have peace. So, yoga starts, not with poses, but by cleaning up your relationships – with yourself, with others and with the world around you - so you can create the conditions for inner peace to arise. Moral and ethical practices are the foundation of Classical Yoga. The first principle of practice is ‘ahimsa’, which means non-violence or do no harm. Beyond just refraining from causing harm to others, you can think of this as a practice of actively nurturing or peace-building in your own body, mind, heart, and relationships. Here are some ways that you can explore ‘ahimsa’ from the inside out:
TALK NICELY TO YOURSELF
“Make sure you’re in a conversation with your body, and not an argument.”
I got this brilliant piece of advice from one of my very first yoga teachers. She was probably watching me try to wrestle myself into a deep forward fold … and failing … and looking miserable about it. Folding in half felt completely impossible in my body, but other people in yoga class seemed to do it with ease. And I thought I should be able to do it too. I hated forward folds – that is, until I got out of the habit of arguing with my body and started having conversations with myself instead. A dialogue with myself in a forward fold goes like this:
ME: (with eyes closed; not paying attention to anyone else) Hey, hamstrings. How does this pose feel for you?
HAMSTRINGS: This is kind of intense. You’re making me really uncomfortable. Can you back off a little?
ME: Of course! (shifting a little out of the depth of the forward fold) Is that better?
HAMSTRINGS: OMG. Yes! SOOO much better. Thank you.
ME: I love you like that, hammies! If there’s anything else you need to be comfortable, let me know. I’m listening.
You probably know the iceberg analogy … You can see 10% of an iceberg above the surface of the water. The other 90% is submerged. Like an iceberg, 90% of what is going on in a yoga pose is invisible to the naked eye. The invisible part of your practice also happens to be the most important part: your attitude and intentions.
If you’re at war with your body’s limitations or bullying yourself into the poses, you’re missing 90% of your yoga practice, and the most fundamental principle: ‘ahimsa’. There’s no bullying in yoga.
Folding yourself in half or forcing your ankle behind your ear is more likely to take you down a path to your physiotherapist’s office than it is to take you down a path to inner peace. Be careful not to place too much stock in the shapes of the poses. You get better at what you practice, so it’s most important that you practice includes adopting an attitude of compassion and curiousity towards yourself.
TAKE A SAVASANA
Your mind is the most powerful tool you have in your possession. Everything begins as a thought in your head. Many of us carry the belief – consciously or unconsciously, that we are not enough. The predominant cultural messaging we live with is that we need more – to do more, to get more, to be more – more money, more Instagram followers, more success, more thin, more beautiful, more fit, etc… so we can finally be enough.
Instead of trying to get somewhere else or become a new and improved version of yourself, Savasana asks you to find comfort and peace in who you are right now: to lie down, look inside yourself; disentangle yourself from the external messaging that you’re somehow inadequate, and engage with yourself for long enough to notice that you are enough – just as you are. You have everything you need in the present moment. You are already whole. There is nothing you can add to yourself that will make you more complete.
Your breath is always with you – which is fortunate – because it’s also a super simple & powerful tool for shifting your state of mind. And you can use it anywhere, anytime. Long exhalations are soothing for your nervous system and calming for your body and mind. Try this:
Close your mouth and inhale through your nose as you count to four. Then exhale for a count of 8. That’s it! Easy peasy! Long exhalations stimulate your body’s relaxation response.
APPROACH CONFLICT WITH CURIOSITY
Once upon a time, I went to school to become a mediator. Plans changed. I went on to study philosophy. In those 8 years of study, I learned a lot about arguing, and how to skillfully engage with people and ideas I don’t agree with. In mediation class, we used a textbook called ‘Getting to Yes’ to guide our practice in resolving conflicts. That book had some of the most helpful pieces of advice I’ve ever read for resolving disagreements peacefully:
I’ve been using these strategies to help peacefully navigate my way through difficult conversations for my entire adult life. Many people haven’t had practice or instruction in how to deal productively with conflicts (I see you, internet!). It’s helpful to keep this in mind and forgive ourselves and each other when we get it wrong.
Disagreements are part of life. Just about every subject worth discussing (politics, religion, public health policy, the best way to raise children, etc) carries the risk of conflict. But there's also usually some common ground. And it’s important to be willing to find common ground - so that you can engage in a productive conversation. In the words of world debate champion, Julia Dhar, ‘If we are more focused on what makes us different than the same, then every debate is a fight.”
When you find yourself in a hard conversation where someone holds a different position than you (on vaccinations, for example), it's important to:
Even if no one changes their mind, you’ve likely glimpsed one another’s humanity, and learned about seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. That makes it harder to make someone an ‘other’ or an ‘enemy’. And that alone has value IF you are interested in practicing peace.
To learn more about the art of constructive conversations and negotiations, I recommend reading Getting to Yes. Or check out these talks with world debate champion Julia Dhar.
RADIATE PEACEFUL VIBES
Bolster your decision to practice peace by radiating good will to yourself and others through meditation. Sit comfortably. Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths. Relax. Visualize yourself and say:
May you have peace
In your body
Repeat those words, sending goodwill out to others
Instead of attempting to wrestle your body, mind, or other people into submission, a lot of peace-building activity boils down to trading in an attitude of coercion for one of curiosity. Peacefulness is a way of approaching life without violence or prejudice, and without thinking of others as ‘enemies’. It’s a way of approaching conflict that is collaborative and values relationships. Practicing peacefulness isn’t easy. It requires tremendous patience, compassion and skill. Like any skill, you can get better at it - with practice. If you want to make peace in the world, start practicing from the inside out.